Pros: Sub-$100, Wide Sound Stage, Large Cups, Velvet Pads, Great Mids & Highs
Cons: Anemic Bass, Flimsy, Doesn't Fit Everyone
Audio-Technica ATH-AD700 Over-rated or worthy of praise?
We all know the AD700. It's recommended far and wide by literally every gaming community out there, and a lot of audio/headphone communities. But why? Why is this headphone so popular? I've tried a lot of headphones and of course, I had to know. I previously picked up it's little brother the AD500, and was really curious to see if the AD700 was that much different. Plus, I wanted to test the AD700 against other headphones to see if they really are worthy of all the praise and recommendations they receive across the web, or if it's just a cultural thing. Anyone that knows me knows I really don't like it when headphones are blindly suggested when the folk suggesting them don't have them or never even listened to them and are just doing "copy pasta". But that's me being over excited and bitter, so excuse that, and take it as humor. Anyhow, I like to put my money where my mouth is, so I buy headphones and try them out, or borrow them. Whatever it takes. So let's dive into the fabled AD700.
Quick reference to what these are, if you're not familiar with them:
Note: These are not my recommendations of use here, merely why I wanted to try them.
- Open-air headphones
- Huge full-size cups
- Focused on highs & mids, very light on the bass, with a wide sound stage
- Often recommended for gaming. Less often recommended for other listening experiences (?).
I bought them to check out if all the hype and talk is true, or if it's just a bunch of internet copy & paste type stuff. Plus I just wanted to hear them, I like the look and I love huge cups on headphones, so I naturally wanted to try another Audio-Technica (as I was not overly impressed with the AD500, which I had picked up for a steal of $30).
What Comes in the Box:
- The headphone itself
- 1/4" adapter (cable terminates as a 3.5mm jack)
- Paper stuff that we don't care about (manual)
If you care about packaging, the box is attractive. Other than that, there's no carry bag or carry case or anything, so we're definitely not talking about a prized set or package like some brands put out with their headphones. Not that you would likely want these for portables or need a case, because they're so huge. Inside the box you simply have a headphone with a long cord attached that terminates into a 3.5mm jack with the typical (but good) screw-on 1/4" adapter. There is some paper included, but we don't read those do we?
Construction, Materials & Comfort:
The AD700 right away strikes you as being a huge headphone. I mean big. These cups are massive. So if you're like me, and you like big headphones, these will satisfy you in terms of their size. The drivers are open with a simple grill made of a light material and the color isn't too distracting (though some don't like it, I didn't mind, though I prefer black, grey, silver, white myself). The phones are padded with a soft velvet material that is very soft, but backed up with a firm foam underneath. The material can be comfortable, but some people also find this material to be a little itchy or scratchy to them, so that's a relative thing. I would have preferred velour, naturally.
The materials used are basically all plastic with some soft metal parts (the grills). They are not built like a tank by any means, they're actually rather fragile headphones. So sitting on them or throwing them into a messenger bag is likely going to result in you buying new headphones or duct-taping them back together. In other words, take care of them, they are not beaters.
Per typical Audio-Technica in the line, the same shape and built follows through. It's a floating design where the pressure results nearly all on the cups themselves. The floating pads have a foam which is not remarkable and then the tension bars that create the clamp force (which can be bent to adjust clamping pressure either way). Some are a fan of this design. Some are not. So that is going to be a relative thing.
The drivers are angled. This may, or may not, have something to do with the sound stage generation and the relative fatigue-free sound as it takes less pressure to generate volume. This may or may not be accurate, I suggest you verify with the Sound Science folk if you're at all interested in this. I'm clearly not one of those folk, so this is completely speculative on my part.
I personally cannot get any of the AD500/AD700/AD900's to fit well on my head and I would think I have a normal sized head. The cups seem to rest with a lot of pressure on the lower side of the cup and I don't even feel them touching (yet they do) on the top of the cup. They felt like they were going to fall off all the time, even when they didn't. So I always felt like they were not fitted well. A few folk recommended I bend the bars, which I did, to make them tighter. That helped a little. But I still felt like they simply were not fitting like a glove the way I wanted them to feel. Some people seem to think these are some of the most comfortable headphones there are. I guess I'm unfortunately someone who doesn't agree. The materials feel ok to the touch, but overall, I didn't feel like they were fitted well and the cups didn't have even distribution of pressure which I find uncomfortable. That said, the headphones are very light weight and the clamping pressure is quite low, so I can see why some would call them rather comfortable (combining materials used and weight and clamp pressure).
On to the heart and soul of any headphone, how does the thing sound, right? Before ever putting them on, you should definitely be aware that they are not fully balanced or neutral headphones. They are colored. What does that mean? It means they are going to sound like certain parts of the frequency spectrum are more forward and emphasized than others. Knowing this, you won't be sound-shocked by what you hear, hopefully. I say this because going from headphone A to headphone B, when they are drastically different, it can cause very odd hearing perception and one may sound incredibly different simply due to a frequency range being emphasized or not, and your preference to a range will really impact how you listen to a headphone that lacks it. So keep that in mind. You'll understand what I'm referring to here in a moment.
Quick Summary of the AD700 for those that can't be bothered reading much:
- Emphasized full Highs & Mids, mostly Mids
- Non-fatiguing at moderate listening level, no sibilance noted (at high volumes, it is fatiguing).
- Shy, anemic Bass (this is why the Highs & Mids are emphasized)
- Good for genres that do not need a strong bass presence
- Easy to drive, no amplification is necessary
- Excellent sound stage, but maybe too large for some listening applications
Music tested, from my trusty test-group that I tend to use on all headphones (all lossless), included: Ani Difranco (Acoustic, Female Vocals), Regina Spektor (Folk, Pop, Female Vocals), Euge Groove (Jazz, Bassy), Ludovico Einaudi (Classical, Piano), Keith Jarrett (Classical, Piano, Live Concert), The Cranberries (Pop, Female Vocals), Elton John (Classic Rock), Avantasia (Metal, Fantasy), Buckethead (Alt. Metal), Rusko (Dubstep), Ephixa (Dubstep), JesusDied4DubStep (Dubstep), Robyn (EDM), BT (Trance, Techno), OceanLab (Trance, Techno).
Hardware used ranged from a Sansa Fuze, Matrix CUBE DAC, to Schiit Lyr to test amplification needs and benefits. Quick note: no amplification is needed and it doesn't do anything more with massive amplification, merely done for test purposes. Your sound card or portable device or simple DAC/AMP are more than sufficient for this headphone.
Even though frequency response graphs do not display any sort of whole picture of the sound of a headphone, it at least helps us to have a common language or grounds to speak from or refer to.
As you can see, the AD700 is flat from 100hz to 1khz. That's supposedly what you're hearing the most of, when I say emphasis, which is primarily mids in the builk of that range. After that, there is a dip from 1khz down to 6khz which is the upper mids and lower highs. Then a spike up from 8khz to 10khz, which gives a bump in `detail' suggestion. And then back down again right after 10khz to roll off quickly, which likely helps reduce the fatigue effect of higher treble frequencies at moderate to high volumes. What I interpret from this graph is that it actually sounds like what this graph says (for once). The mids are forward and emphasized and the highs are forward, but not fatiguing in general at moderate volumes. The bass is light and anemic though, as the bass rolls off quickly after 100hz. So you'll hear some bass, and it has punch and impact, but it doesn't have that reverb that satisfies someone who wants to hear some long bass tones.
The highs of the AD700 are pretty detailed, a smoother airy and fatigue free. They're not quite analytical in nature, so you don't have to worry too much about them making things sound harsh or grainy. Just enough detail to give you the perception of a level of detail associated with critical listening, without the overly critical aspect of headphones like that which have more emphasis in the upper mids and highs in general. Overall the highs present themselves very well and are not what I consider too smooth (not like a veiled Sennheiser model), but are smooth enough to avoid fatigue. I did not experience sibilance either. However at higher volumes, I did have some fatigue, mainly due to the volume and likely that spike around 10khz which would be considered normal fatigue and not a fault of the headphone. They can also be described as breathy, not overly bright, clear and transparent, with good definition and detail. The highs do have a little aspect of being mellow, which comes across nicely for long listening sessions.
The mids (250~400hz and up, depending on how you define mids) are essentially what this headphone is all about. They're solid from 100hz to nearly 2khz in a near flat line, so they make the bulk of what you hear and are the most forward combined compared to other frequencies. The sound actually reflects that too. The mids are detailed, have ambience, balanced and pretty clear with a great resolution and are fast and are the focus. Great transparency here. This is the strongest aspect of the sound of the headphone and why you likely would like these headphones, for their mid-response and emphasis. It comes across clear and without congestion and isn't drowned out by bass nor made harsh with spikes in the highs. It's a good smooth sound, but with detail and character. Nothing to fault here at all, an excellent renderer of the sound.
Well, we know there's a big drop off after 100hz. So your bass is likely to be lacking. And when you listen to the headphone, it's true. The headphone is pretty anemic. It's not void of bass, as you do have some punch from 100hz to 250hz, but that just gives you that snap, the punch, the impact of bass like sounds be they an instrument or a synthesized tone. You simply won't get that reverbing bass that a lot of music, movies and games have that someone who enjoys good visceral bass would want. This headphone is shy on bass, light on bass. This is a good thing for some people, as it allows the mids and highs to really project forward (note, the highs and mids are not actually forward, they're flat, it's the lack of bass that makes them seem forward). For others, this is a deal breaker (like me), because I want a headphone that is capable in all areas, not just a few. I tried equalizing up the bass a little to see if it could do it, and it did help a little, but by the time I got to levels where I was satisfied with the sound, I felt the overall sound of the headphone had degraded and that the bass distorted and simply didn't reach volumes on low frequencies where I wanted it on some tracks. This is the biggest flaw, next to the comfort/fit, that I found with the AD700. And frankly, I would rather have to equalize down the bass, which won't distort sound, rather than equalize up the bass, which does distort sound. This is why this headphone is not widely received as an all-around listening headphone, as it really does simply lack bass response--but does provide punch and snap. This is good or bad, depending on your application. For me, the overall picture, this is a hard fault.
They're open-air, so there's no isolation what so ever. This is a no brainer, but sometimes, you still have to say it for someone to realize that their friends, family and folk on the street (if you dare to wear these outside of course) will hear what you hear. That said, they do leak, but don't seem to leak nearly as loud as a Grado, but are not as subdued in leaking as a Beyer I find. Simply my observation there, if it matters at all.
This is the other big point of the AD700 in terms of its sound, next to its good flat forward section of mids. The soundstage is actually quite large and wide. It has great separation and imaging. But it literally has an unnaturally large sound stage when compared to some other open-air headphones that I've tried. For music listening, I found this to be distracting, as it took away from some intimate feels of some tracks like some acoustic sessions that I enjoy. It reminded me of how the K701 did the same thing, making the sound stage so wide that it could become a little too wide for some applications. This sound stage is where the gaming application hype really comes from, because few headphones, if any, in this price range, have the wide soundstage that the AD700 has. Again, this can be a good thing, or a flaw. I have mixed thoughts on this, because in some things, I like that huge sound stage (it was fun in some games), but in others, it was distracting and I felt took away from the music (like in some acoustic and piano that I listened to, where I wanted to be up next to them, intimate, not just in the crowd, so to speak).
Gaming & Movies:
I of course had to test this aspect specifically with the AD700 since it is so widely recommended for gaming. The sound stage does lend to a neat experience in games as I felt it did make you feel more like you were in a space, and not just hearing a sound. That aspect was positive. However, the anemic bass made it seem like a hallow experience. I felt the same way during movie play back as well. The wide sound stage was great for generating a large space, but unfortunately, the lack of the low end just made it seem like a flat and hallow experience that didn't rustle your jimmies. The imaging is good, but most headphones have good enough imaging for gaming--this aspect of positioning which is often attributed to the headphone is actually the processor that does the positioning emulation that the headphone renders. A standard recorded stereo sound signal will not suddenly be 3D or sound like it's "over there." It requires specific recording or 3D emulation processing to produce the 3D effect or positioning effect that is commonly referred to when this headphone is talked about, or when gaming and movies in general are talked about. That said, I enjoyed other headphones much more for gaming and movies than the AD700. I can understand and appreciate the use of the AD700 for gaming where the concept of "competitive-foot-step-listening" critical listening is important (these folk want zero bass, all detail, accurate imaging, which well, this headphone does). These happen to specifically be first-person-shooter games. So if you're not playing those, and you're not an online competitive player, then I don't see any reason what so ever to be recommended this headphone for gaming. And certainly not for movies either. I would say this headphone is definitely over-rated and over-hyped for gaming use in general. The word "gaming" comes up, and without a doubt, a few people are doing to spam "AD700!" which I think is not founded. Again, I think the headphone does have its place in the gaming community where online competitive-foot-step-listening (FPS games) is critical. But even these games are variable, because it's only effective for games that are not team-based, since discerning a team-mate from an enemy is not going to happen without visualization. But in a free-for-all, or death match situation FPS, this is where positioning of competitive-foot-step-listening is important and the only place I agree that the AD700 is good for.
Basically, for other applications in gaming and movies other than the situation described exhaustively above, another headphone is a better deal in my opinion. So this headphone gets my "over-rated stamp of approval" for gaming. Note, this is not to say the headphone isn't nice to listen to.
The AD700 is a nice headphone to look at. However, I felt the construction, like all of the AD-series could benefit from better materials, and the AD900 does improve in that area with better construction material. The comfort was relative, I think it could be comfortable if it fit better, but overall, I didn't find it all that comfortable. This is merely my preference, as I do prefer a glove-like fit and some grip, not a floppy flimsy setup on my head. The sound is good. I think if all you need are mids, some smoothed highs with a touch of detail, and a little touch of bass impact, this headphone will work for you--acoustic and some single instrument (like violin, reed instruments, etc come to mind). The lack of total bass response however takes away from the headphone in my opinion for a wider application. It was a hallow experience for pop, some bassy jazz, some classical that involved piano & cello and symphonic tracks where low end is quite important and reverb is important. It didn't do any sort of electronic music (EDM, dub, techno, trance) justice with its lack of bass too. I felt it to was also way too weak in bass for progressive and modern rock, alternative metal and metal in general, but was ok for classic rock (which traditionally had less bass anyways).
So this headphone isn't an all around listening experience. I certainly didn't feel it was the holy grail of gaming, the opposite in fact, as it has less application in gaming as a whole (let's face it, the bulk of gamers are not competitive online foot-step-listeners). It wasn't the kind of headphone I'd want for movies with its lack of bass. And the span of music genres that it simply didn't render well due to lack of bass was a lot larger than the few genres that it seems to be pretty good with.
So unfortunately, I think the AD700 is largely overrated and overhyped. I think it's application is warranted for a specific gaming genre and a few musical genres. But they are quite small and limited. I think other headphones do a better overall job. I would say right away that even in this price range (usually $90ish retail, it fluctuates), there are other headphones that are superior (an example would be the Fischer Audio FA-011 around $118) and in a lower bracket, the Samson SR850 (around $50). But that's simply my take on it.